In her historical novel ‘Green Island,’ Shawna Yang Ryan reminds us that Taiwan’s democracy, while justifiably celebrated, remains a work in progress.
Early in Green Island, the narrator recalls her father’s journey through Taipei in the spring of 1947 to a community meeting convened by Governor General Chen Yi, who had been governing Taiwan on behalf of the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) for the past 16 months. As he approaches the auditorium, the narrator interjects: “At this moment, I want to call out across the decades, ‘Baba, turn around. Go home.’” Speaking from the other side of the devastation that will be visited upon her family over the four decades that follow, she pinpoints the moment in which their fate — and, by the novel’s logic, that of Taiwan — was sealed. At the meeting, her father, one of hundreds of earnest attendees “expecting nothing but honesty” from the panel, raised his hand and made a measured request of the new government: political representation for the Taiwanese people.
Green Island begins a few days before, on the evening of Feb. 27, 1947, “the night that the widow was beaten in front of the Tian-ma Teahouse.” That widow was 40-year-old Lin Jiang-mai, beaten by agents of the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau for demanding the return of her confiscated cigarettes, which she had been selling at her street stall. Outraged Taiwanese bystanders, worn down by months of economic hardship, rallied around her and challenged the agents. One intervener was shot dead in the ruckus. By the following evening, thousands of Taiwanese had risen up in protest, storming Taipei’s police stations and government offices. In following weeks, up to 30,000 people (the official number has not been confirmed) would be killed in a wave of violent suppression unleashed by the KMT government.
This episode, known as the “February 28 Incident,” will be familiar to those acquainted with Taiwan’s modern history. But most readers of Anglophone literature — indeed most people outside Taiwan — are unaware of the incident or the period of authoritarian rule that it ushered in on Taiwan. In her second novel, Taiwanese-American writer Shawna Yang Ryan makes the island-nation’s troubled history not just known, but viscerally felt. For that, Green Island is as much a political achievement as a literary one.
The Tsai family is the prism through which Yang Ryan filters Taiwan’s history from 1947 to 2003. The narrator’s father is a doctor with his own surgery. Like many promising young Taiwanese medics in that period, he studied Western medicine in Tokyo, where his future wife, the narrator’s mother, also trained as a painter. A well-educated and modestly successful family, the Tsais are an emblem of the Taiwanese middle class under Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945). On the evening of Feb. 27, 1947, Dr. Tsai delivers the couple’s fourth child, a baby girl and the unnamed narrator of the novel.
Soon after, Dr. Tsai is taken away and — unbeknown to his family — imprisoned by the KMT government for “sedition and challenging the status quo.” Family life immediately fractures under the emotional, social and financial pressures generated by his unexplained absence. His wife, enduring the stigma of having been left behind, grows a thicker skin. “Her posture, her skin, and the way she speaks declare the height from which she has fallen,” the narrator observes.
After 11 years of imprisonment on Green Island, located 33 km off the east coast of the main island of Taiwan, Dr. Tsai returns to his family. He is hollowed out by years of abjection, “a shadow of a shadow.” His return marks the beginning of an even more complicated and testing period for the family as they grapple with his guilt and come to terms with his brokenness. “In all ways, he was a stranger,” remarks the narrator.
Years later, after dutifully agreeing to marry Wei, the son of a family friend who is earning a doctorate at Berkeley, the narrator immigrates to California. The couple raises two daughters in the Bay Area suburbs and the story takes the familiar shape of an immigrant tale: “Wei and I had a two-story shingled house, dinner on the table every night at six.” With “a Ph.D., citizenship, two lovely daughters,” they have attained, on paper, the American Dream.
But despite his wife’s trepidations, Wei becomes active in the Taiwanese pro-democracy diaspora and eventually persuades her to allow a blacklisted dissident, Tang Jia Bao, to stay with them after fleeing Taiwan. Wei’s activism and Tang’s presence bring about major disturbance in their political lives and threaten the precarious equilibrium of their marriage. In the book’s Acknowledgments, Yang Ryan writes that Tang’s character was based partly on the experiences of politician Peng Ming-min, journalist Henry Liu and professor Chen Wen-cheng — all vocal critics of the KMT who spent significant periods overseas.
While the story covers the years from 1947 to 2003, the novel’s scope is much larger and more ambitious. Yang Ryan deftly weaves events of the nineteenth and early twentieth century into her narrative, zooming out to give readers a longer view of Taiwan’s largely colonial history. In one scene, the narrator’s grandfather recalls how his father fought for the short-lived Republic of Taiwan against the Japanese at Keelung in 1895. “This is not national history,” he tells his rapt grandchildren. By showing her characters telling their own oral histories in the privacy of their own home, Yang Ryan unearths a repressed history of resistance that was confined, for so long, to hushed conversations in parlors, kitchens and bedrooms.
While the story covers the years from 1947 to 2003, the novel’s scope is much larger and more ambitious. Yang Ryan deftly weaves events of the nineteenth and early twentieth century into her narrative, zooming out to give readers a longer view of Taiwan’s largely colonial history.
Yang Ryan renders her characters’ experience in strikingly corporeal language. Newborn babies are covered in blood; breath is sour; bodies secrete sweat and tears. Like Dr. Tsai, who sees the human body as “nothing more than an organism,” Yang Ryan takes an unsentimental approach to physicality, forcing comprehension of the pain and injury endured by thousands of men in secret military prisons during the White Terror. But in Green Island, bodies are also sites of emotional connection and sexual pleasure, as when Wei and the narrator make love, “his body scooped around mine” during their last night in Taichung, or an elderly Dr. Tsai rubs vitamin E oil into his wife’s feet as she lays dying on a hospital bed. Like the subversive histories shared by family members, these small acts of physical intimacy sustain characters crippled by years of buried trauma.
Yang Ryan’s descriptions of the urban environment are indulgently and insistently lyrical. The narrator remembers the candy store where she ate shaved ice as a young girl, “its walls packed with shadowed jars of candy and tins of crackers, sucking light and smelling of candy haw flakes and powdered ginseng and burned mosquito punk.” Each scene is redolent, dense with the distinctive smells, sounds and textures of vintage Taiwan — and later, 1980s California.
The same lyricism that brings the landscape to life can, however, be cloying when applied to the inner lives of her characters. Occasionally, the language feels overwrought, drawing attention away from the object being described toward the sheer artfulness of the description: “The tendril in her chest had bloomed, full leaves and blossoms, snaking around her heart, choking her throat.” In other places, the novel’s hyper-literary register clashes with the starker language of political argument and historical explication.
Green Island reminds us that Taiwan’s democracy, while justifiably celebrated, remains a work in progress. Despite three full peaceful transitions of power, the lack of a comprehensive truth and reconciliation process to address the atrocities committed during the White Terror period continues to undermine the integrity of Taiwan’s democracy. The murders of Lin I-hsiung’s twin daughters and mother in 1980, mentioned in the novel, remain unsolved. Taiwan’s continued use of the death penalty — especially in response to populist sentiment following brutal crimes — is another legacy of its authoritarian past.
These discrepancies are crystallized in the novel when the narrator returns to Taipei in 2003 and visits the 228 Peace Park. She notes that the park has become a monument to peace, as opposed to a memorial to the dead — “that would be too controversial.” In one of the book’s most powerful passages, she repudiates the cliché of Taiwan’s “bloodless” transition to democracy and laments ignorance of “the quiet revolution that had taken place for decades and the tens of thousands who had died.”
Lines later, we come to the moral heart of Green Island: “No memorial was built for the men who had survived by selling their souls.” The novel stands as an ambivalent monument to this unpalatable truth. In the face of monolithic official narratives, Yang Ryan holds up the vexed domestic life of the Tsais and uses it to “brush history against the grain,” in the words of Walter Benjamin. More than a worthy introduction to Taiwan for the general reader, Green Island is an eloquent testimony of life under authoritarian rule — and a timely reminder that the most difficult stories to hear are often the most important ones to tell.
— Editor’s note: A Chinese translation of the novel was published in late 2016.
Green Island: A Novel
Shawna Yang Ryan